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Local Iraqi leaders choose new Baghdad mayor

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a scene that coalition officials must have dreamt about for months, Iraqis lined up on Sunday to cast their ballots for the next mayor of Baghdad—sort of.

But rather than a general election open to all eligible residents of this city of 5 million, 49 local government representatives assembled in a heavily guarded municipal building to choose who'll lead them in tackling the problems that plague this fabled and unwieldy metropolis.

The final approval of his selection will be made by L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator of the coalition. However, officials said Bremer is expected to give his okay after a background check.

The Iraqi representatives, members of the Baghdad City Council and other local leaders, picked a resident of the United Arab Emirates, Alaa Mahmood al Tamimi, an Iraqi native who promises to return to his homeland and begin to address Baghdad's horrendous traffic, overflowing garbage and inadequate water and sewage systems.

"It is my duty to come back to my country," said al Tamimi, an engineer and academic who's in his mid-50s.

It was a refreshing moment for the U.S.-led coalition, which has had to divert its attention from rebuilding Iraq to deal with an eruption of violence across parts of the country.

Many participants acknowledged that the Baghdad election was just a step in the democratic transition now under way in neighborhoods, cities and provinces in Iraq. But the opportunity for Iraqis in Baghdad to begin to control their destiny was, for now, not to be denied.

"We are learning," said candidate Fa'iq Abbas Tawfiq al Bidhawi, "but we'll get there."

"You need to build democracy not just from the national level, but from the ground up," said Andrew L. Morrison, a coalition official monitoring the process in Baghdad. "They have come an awful long way."

The last mayor of Baghdad was handpicked by Saddam Hussein. He disappeared during the war last year.

"He fled before we got to City Hall," Morrison said.

The process of choosing a new mayor began about a month ago with an initial field of 93 people who responded to public announcements, including posters and newspapers ads. The field was narrowed to 28, who then were interviewed.

The council heard from eight men vying to be mayor.

The candidates made opening statements and then fielded a few questions from voters. Trash was a hot topic.

"The top priority is to solve the garbage problem," said candidate al Bidhawi, who received degrees from the University of Arizona and in England.

Baghdad's massively congested traffic, with motorists zipping in every direction and often ignoring the hapless traffic cops, was also a main concern.

There also was talk about trespassers and looters on public property, but security in the city wasn't addressed because it's considered a concern for the nation's Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and for the coalition.

There was plenty of security for the election, however. The municipal building was surrounded by American armored vehicles and guarded by multiple checkpoints. Heavily armed U.S. soldiers roamed the hallways and stairwells.

The mayor-to-be will move to Baghdad from Abu Dhabi, where he works for the government as a senior planning adviser. He was educated at universities in Baghdad and Paris and has written four books on engineering and construction.

Council Chairman Khudair Abbas said he was moved by al Tamimi's willingness to give up a good life and salary in the United Arab Emirates.

"He came to Baghdad to save his city," Abbas said.

With assassinations not uncommon, the risk of being a coalition-supported mayor is obvious.

In brief remarks, the bespectacled al Tamimi, wearing a Western-style business suit, promised to be frank and clear about Baghdad's problems.

"We don't have a magic wand," he said. "We should all work together."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.